13:43, November 21 199 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-21 13:43:08
The Guardian view on the sentencing of Matthew Hedges: a violation of rights

This year, the United Arab Emirates launched the inaugural World Tolerance Summit – its latest initiative to brand itself a humane and progressive country celebrating openness and dialogue. That was last week. Today, it jailed the British academic Matthew Hedges for life for spying, stunning diplomats as well as friends and supporters. The sentence has sent a chill through academics and others who deal with the UAE. It is not only an injustice to Mr Hedges, but a slap in the face for the UK, coming days after Jeremy Hunt met de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and said he was hoping for a good outcome. Today the foreign secretary said he was shocked by a sentence contrary to assurances from a “friend and trusted partner”.

Mr Hedges was held for five months in solitary confinement with no legal access; his family say he was fed a cocktail of drugs and made to sign a document in Arabic, which he could not read. The charges against him reportedly rested in part on this “confession”, though no information has been given on the basis of his conviction and sentencing. He had no lawyer at his hearing, which lasted less than five minutes.

These blatant violations of rights are not in themselves surprising; three years ago, a UN expert voiced extreme concern about serious allegations of violations of due process and fair trial guarantees, especially in state security-related cases. The UAE is an authoritarian country which has taken a sharp turn towards increased repression since the Arab spring of 2011, notably with the mass trial of the “UAE 94”. This spring, the prominent academic Nasser bin Ghaith and the award-winning human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor were both jailed for 10 years. But such a severe sentence for the citizen of an ally, against all signs to the contrary, is unprecedented.

Mr Hedges, a student at Durham University, had been researching a PhD thesis on foreign and security policy after the Arab spring when he was detained. Though his family insist he is innocent and say MI6 has given assurances he was not working for them, it is possible that the UAE did not believe its ally. Yet that does not account for its apparent U-turn. One analyst has described him as a pawn. Many note that the judgment comes just after the UK tabled a UN security council resolution calling for a truce in the devastating war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led the coalition against Houthi rebels.

Scholars have rightly denounced Mr Hedges’ treatment; institutions funded by UAE cash should show the spine to do likewise. But it is not only academia that has an imperative to act. The UAE is a former British protectorate; the UK still trains its armed forces. Bilateral trade doubled between 2011 and 2016, to £15bn, and continues to soar. But when the UAE shows its ally such contempt, business as usual is neither right nor wise. Mr Hunt has warned of serous diplomatic consequences. The UK must stand firm for its own sake as well as that of Mr Hedges.

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